Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Can Iraq survive after taking Mosul back from IS?

An offensive to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is in progress, but the future of the country may still be in doubt, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

On the face of things, the worst is over for Mosul. A massive military operation against the Islamic State (IS) seems to be underway that could recapture the last key stronghold of the militants in weeks. International aid agencies also say preparations are in full swing to tackle a possible influx of people from Mosul as Iraq prepares its liberation offensive.

Yet, inadequate military and political planning for the post-IS stabilisation of the city is casting doubt on whether peace will hold between Iraq’s main ethnic and religious communities that have been vying for power and wealth since the collapse of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Moreover, ethnic and sectarian power struggles and attempts to redraw the map of Iraq’s second-largest city and the provincial capital of the Nineveh Province and one of its most culturally diverse regions are widely feared to be on the verge of triggering the end of Iraq as a unitary state.

IS terrorists swept across northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014, and many Iraqi Sunni Arabs welcomed the group at that time as an alternative to what they saw as the increasingly sectarian rule of the then Shia prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki.

The group later declared a self-ruled caliphate stretching across a third of Iraq and Syria. After the Iraqi security forces launched a counter-offensive some weeks later, IS lost some 50 per cent of its territory, and its self-proclaimed state continues to diminish.
Iraqi officials say they expect Mosul, the largest city still under jihadist control, to be fully liberated by the end of the year. Iraqi troops have recaptured several towns near Mosul and established a logistics hub in Qayyarah some 60km to the south.
Last week, Iraqi planes dropped millions of leaflets over Mosul warning residents that the offensive to liberate the city was imminent and calling on IS supporters to lay down their weapons.

The United States, which is providing the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmergas with air and military support, weapons, training and intelligence, is also broadening its efforts in the offensive against Mosul.  
Reports in the main US media have suggested that hundreds of US troops have already arrived at the Qayyarah air base to support Iraqi efforts to liberate the city from IS and bringing US troops closer to the frontline.

However, many analysts believe that the Iraqis are not fully ready to move forwards and that political preparations may be needed before the country’s Shia-led government in Baghdad is able to regain full political control of the province.

The speculations are a reflection of how difficult the fight for Mosul, a city haunted by ethnic and sectarian divisions as well as regional ambitions, may be and the need to find a broader agreement between Iraqi and regional stakeholders.

Part of the challenge in retaking Mosul is the make-up of the forces participating in the offensive, and there have been repeated calls from different communities to exclude one group or another.
While the Baghdad Shia-led government is not anxious to see Kurdish Peshmergas fighters and local Sunni forces take on a role in recapturing Mosul, the Kurdish authorities and Sunni political and tribal leaders have rejected the participation of the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in the offensive.

Many representatives of other minorities, such as Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and Turkomens, have also differed on who should participate, citing fears of ethnic and religious violence.  
Another major obstacle that could further complicate the Mosul operation is the role of Turkey. Ankara maintains a sizable troop presence in Bashiqa near Mosul by agreement with the administration of leader of the Iraqi Kurdish Region Masoud Barzani.

Iraq’s Shia-led government has repeatedly demanded that Ankara withdraw its troops and has been voicing concerns about possible Turkish territorial ambitions in Mosul.

Another major problem cited by Kurds and Sunnis is the lack of a political plan for after Mosul’s liberation. Many in the country’s Sunni minority view the Shia-led government with suspicion, while the Shia fear that IS may regroup and resurface if government forces lose their grip on the liberated Sunni areas.
Ethnic Kurds, who are pursuing independence, have meanwhile pushed to retake land from IS that could be annexed to their desired sovereign state.

Last week, Washington dispatched deputy US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Baghdad and Erbil in a bid to reduce tensions between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and push hard for both sides to be on board in the Mosul offensive.

Blinken also focused on the way the authorities would handle the potential displacement in Mosul, which will be an important “test case” for lasting political reconciliation in the country.

Blinken later flew to Erbil for similar talks with Barzani. An aide to Barzani said that Blinken had succeeded in hammering out an agreement between Baghdad and Erbil in order to meet to discuss details of the upcoming operation to liberate Mosul from IS.

All this makes the liberation of Mosul a complicated and messy situation. While the offensive to retake the city is meant to spell the final defeat of IS in Iraq, many Iraqis now fear that an ensuing power struggle could lead to the breakup of the country.
For the Kurds, the war against IS has brought telling advantages. They have not only fortified their political and territorial gains since 2003, but have also started redrawing the map of northern Iraq to their benefit.

Since the advances of IS more than two years ago, the Kurds have nearly doubled the area under their control. Now the Kurdish leaders are less concerned with defeating IS than with grabbing more land from Arab Iraq.

As the row over Mosul continues, the Kurds are suggesting dividing the existing province into three separate provinces, one each for the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds. Kurdish troops have already seized Sinjar, a key Yazidi-populated district in Mosul, and declared it part of the Kurdistan Region.

Many Iraqi Christians are also demanding that their area be declared a separate province, with some suggesting that it be linked with the autonomous Kurdistan Region and other preferring to stay with Baghdad.

Iraqi Christian activists have been soliciting support from the US Congress to back their proposal and push the US administration to back their demand for a self-ruled Christian protectorate in Nineveh Province.

The Shabaks, a small ethnic and religious minority who live in several towns and villages in the vicinity of Mosul, are also demanding a new province of their own to be cut out from Nineveh.

Meanwhile, many Sunnis are contemplating forging a federal Sunni region in Mosul that would be linked economically with Baghdad but largely self-ruled.  
Regional states, especially Turkey and Iran, claim geostrategic stakes in Mosul including political, ethnic and sectarian links and energy interests.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey was keen to participate in the operation to liberate Mosul from IS. He urged the Iraqi government to heed what he called Turkey’s “rational perspective and suggestions.”

Turkey fears an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq would encourage its own vast autonomy-seeking Kurdish minority and Kurds in Syria to pursue a similar separatist course.

It also fears increasing Iran’s power in its backyard if Iraqi government security forces and Shia PMF take control of Mosul, meaning that it would want to counterbalance Shia Iran’s increasing influence.

Turkey has begun establishing a safe haven in northern Syria, which it hopes to use to expand its influence in its southern neighbour and block Turkish Kurdish separatists from operating from an emerging autonomous Kurdish enclave in Syria.

Baghdad fears that Turkey’s two-pronged strategy is designed to take advantage of Iraq’s troubles in order to advance a territorial agenda that includes the annexation of Mosul if the country breaks up.

As a result of its relentless support for the Shia militias and its religious, political and economic leverage, Iran has never been as influential in Iraq as it is today.

Iran has been vehemently opposed to an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, and its leaders have been insisting on the unity of the country. Tehran also wants a strong Shia-led government in Baghdad to counter perceived threats from Ankara.

The sad reality is that the powers of disruption are enjoying telling advantages, and they are winning in Iraq. They will vie to control the impact of IS’s rise and fall in order to create new opportunities for more power and influence.

One way to do that will be to give the Iraqis the choice between a fully-fledged country, one which is in chaos and is manipulated by local and regional actors, or one that is breaking up entirely. 

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